Movies

Dubrulle Reviews 1917

Back in November, in the introduction to a review of Midway, One Thing after Another claimed it it was breaking “new ground” because it usually did “not review movies.” And yet, here we are again, reviewing another movie. In this blog’s defense, all we can say is that we look for material wherever we can. It so turned out that last Friday night, Professor Hugh Dubrulle was invited by some friends to see 1917, and he accepted with alacrity, thinking he could leverage some entertainment and good times into another post. What follows are his thoughts on the film.


Truth be told, due to the many trailers I saw on social media, I’d anxiously awaited the release of 1917 for months. I must admit, though, that this feeling of anticipation was mingled with ambivalence. The trailers suggested that the movie was beautifully filmed and suspenseful. The premise, however, seemed a bit difficult to swallow (“Deliver this message to your brother’s battalion, or they will all walk into trap, and 1600 men will die.”) Moreover, the trailers had a Dunkirk quality to them (i.e. the nightmarish images, the ticking clock, etc.), and while I rather liked that film, I didn’t want to see the same thing set in World War I. Of course, I understood that trailers do not always accurately represent a movie, so, in that respect, I hoped that 1917 would be better than advertised.

To summarize, 1917 is an uneven film with many strengths and several flaws. Perhaps the biggest problem is that parts of the plot seems contrived. The movie takes place in northern France on April 6-7, 1917 toward the end of the German army’s retreat to the Hindenburg Line. Lance Corporal Tom Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) is told by his sergeant to choose somebody for an unspecified task. He taps his friend, Lance Corporal Will Schofield (George MacKay). The two are taken to General Erinmore (Colin Firth) who tells them to deliver orders to Colonel Mackenzie (Benedict Cumberbatch) that will call off the attack of the 2nd Devons (2nd battalion, Devonshire Regiment). The Devons, who have advanced deep into the area abandoned by the Germans, are about to attack a newly fortified enemy position which, unbeknownst to them, is much stronger than they think. How the Devons advanced alone and unsupported so far ahead of the main body of the British army is never explained. Why Colonel Mackenzie thinks he can launch an attack with only two measly battalions against any kind of position (without reconnaissance) also remains a mystery. In 1917, as it pursued the retreating Germans, the real British army, habituated to the trench warfare of the previous two-and-a-half years, was cautious to a fault, so this storyline seems difficult to believe. Since I don’t want to pick nits of this sort throughout the review or unveil spoilers, I’ll stop there, but the film is punctuated by a series of similarly unlikely events. Undoubtedly, war is characterized by absurdity, confusion, and chance occurrences, but these events sometimes make it difficult for the viewer to suspend disbelief.

One can partially defend the plot by pointing out that in many ways, this movie is not about World War I in the way that, say, All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) was. (Although Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, on which that film was based, was not exclusively about World War I; it was framed as a brutal bildungsroman). Rather, 1917 is a quest story set during the war. Think here about The Odyssey, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, and The Lord of the Rings. Blake and Schofield’s quest consists of a short but difficult and eventful journey to save Blake’s brother and the lives of the 2nd Devons. Quests are often allegorical, and in thinking about the unlikely plot turns, one must not lose sight of that fact.

A strength of the movie is the cinematography which is often effective without drawing attention to itself. Everybody and his uncle have made much ado about what appears to be one continuous take, something that forges an intimacy between the viewer and the characters. But aside from this technique, it’s obvious that Roger Deakins, the cinematographer, took great pains to convey powerful impressions of very different landscapes. As Blake and Schofield start on their quest, the audience witnesses the muck, the crowds, and claustrophobia of the trenches followed by the decay, desolation, and strangely awesome isolation of no man’s land. The vivid green fields beyond the battle-scarred landscape provide a sort of visual relief. Only when the story reaches the desolate village of Écoust-St.-Mein does the filming become a little too self-conscious by fabricating a rapidly dancing chiaroscuro through the use of flares at night. But still, a number of the scenes that Deakins creates are reminiscent of Dunkirk in that they effectively bring to mind nightmares or frustration dreams.

The acting is generally strong. Chapman and especially Mackay, who are compelled by the plot to carry the film, both deliver excellent performances. Mackay, in particular, makes an impression that is all the more powerful for its restraint. That power is especially on view in a scene where a truck Schofield is riding in gets stuck in the mud. He urges the other soldiers traveling with him—all strangers from another unit—to help him push it forward. The audience knows what he knows: time is wasting. His body language and the tone of his voice capture an earnestness and urgency that have reached the cusp of despair; his fellow soldiers respond to his pleas and having learned of his mission, look at him with a newfound respect. When compared to the scenery-chewing and overacting that characterize Midway (the other major war movie of this year), 1917 proves that less is oftentimes more.

That being said, the movie could have provided Chapman and Mackay with more opportunities to develop their characters. Towards the beginning of their quest, tension between Blake and Schofield suddenly breaks out into the open; after almost getting killed, the latter pointedly asks why he should risk his life on this journey to save the former’s brother. Schofield, who might as well have asked Providence the following, continues his questioning by demanding to know why Blake chose him for this task (to which Blake can only stammer that he did not know what the mission was at the time he picked Schofield). Schofield’s questions are important, existential, and universal. Why should we sacrifice ourselves for others? How are any of us chosen for our missions? These issues assume a substantial, if not sufficiently large, place in Saving Private Ryan. But in 1917, this flare-up between the two men is just that—a flare-up. We hear no more about this matter that so exercises Schofield in this scene and provides a window into the characters of both soldiers. Through his subsequent actions, we learn that Schofield has decisively answered his own question. And while his answer is beautiful, it is wrought by some strange events.

Indeed, the why and the how of this answer is what simultaneously gives the movie its dramatic force while undermining that force. It is painful to write in oblique terms about an issue of such significance to the film, but I cannot say more for fear of spoiling the movie. 1917 is a strong and striking work but not a perfect one. When all is said and done, elements of the plot (particularly the contrived parts) have difficulty sustaining the power of the film. A number of scenes in 1917 are moving, but the conclusion feels incomplete, and not just because the quest only half succeeds.

Dubrulle Reviews Midway

One Thing after Another does not review movies although it has at times participated in historical disputes about films and other visual media (including commercials). Today, the blog breaks new ground by presenting something that resembles a review. Only a couple of days ago, against his better judgment, Professor Hugh Dubrulle was convinced by Professor Phil Pajakowski to attend a showing of Midway. Having expended the time and effort to see the film, Professor Dubrulle thought he ought to parlay his hard-won experience into a review that might both educate and entertain.


It’s hard to make an analogy between Midway and other war films because nothing quite fits. Film reviewers are, surprisingly, not much help. They have described Midway as “traditional” and “retro,” but these are vague phrases. Others, with a greater appearance of precision, have claimed that the film looks like a video game, World War II propaganda with 2019 CGI, or Pearl Harbor II. All these claims, however, seem like glib shorthand generated by necessarily prolific writers seeking to meet yet another deadline. Have these reviewers actually watched World War II propaganda?

To use a label produced by Jeanine Basinger in The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre (2003), Midway looks most like an “epic re-creation of historical events.” Basinger uses this phrase to describe “large-scale epic combat films” that devote “attention to minute detail,” document real events as well as the doings of real people, and make the war “a legendary story—fully distanced and mythic—suitable to be one of our national stories for all time.” Such films include The Longest Day (1962), Battle of the Bulge (1965), Battle of Britain (1969), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), and, of course, the original Midway (1976).[i] Yet the fit is not exact. As we shall see, there is something about our Midway that is not quite so serious and didactic as these docudramas.

Moreover, in epic re-creation films, the point of view is usually omniscient. Midway, on the other hand, focuses on a handful of characters while aiming for omniscience at the same time. It’s not hard to see why. Audiences need to feel connected to a small number of individual characters, but the omniscience also allows theater-goers to make sense of the grand narrative. Unfortunately, the effect is disorienting and asks more of the movie than it can deliver. Most of the time, Dick Best (played by Ed Skrein) and Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) are at the center of the action, and that makes sense. Through Best, a dive bomber pilot, we witness the sharp end of war, while Layton, an intelligence officer, allows us to see the big picture (although it does feel odd to survey the action from such divergent points of view).  These two characters, however, cannot survey everything, so from time to time, the audience ends up in a wild variety of places that are related to the main protagonists in the most tangential way (e.g. China, where Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle tramps about after crashing his plane there). Traveling across the length and breadth of the Pacific to cover a series of events between the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway takes a great deal of time which means that the grand narrative is a bit sketchy and a little disjointed. After Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington famously observed:

The history of a battle is not unlike the history of a ball. Some individuals may recollect all the little events of which the great result is the battle won or lost, but no individual can recollect the order in which, or the exact moment at which, they occurred, which makes all the difference as to their value or importance.

And that seems to be a difficult problem for Midway to resolve, especially since the film is not concerned with merely one battle.

As the foregoing suggests, the screenplay is the great weakness of this film. Because Midway spends so much time jumping from place to place, there is not much time for character development—although the film doesn’t seem to be terribly interested in doing much along those lines anyway. Ed Skrein plays the swaggering, gung-ho fly-boy who is always engaged in harum-scarum antics. The only way in which he doesn’t conform to type is that he is not a fighter pilot—instead, he flies dive-bombers. The film seeks to present him as a cocky but highly capable pilot—a sort of prototype for the guys who became astronauts in The Right Stuff. Partly because of the screenplay and partly because of his acting, Skrein comes off as an unlikable, immature jerk. And his accent is atrocious. Skrein is originally from London, so somebody had to teach him how to speak American English. The result sounds like a strange cross between a Mississippi drawl, New York diction, and somebody being strangled. As for Patrick Wilson’s character, one of the few things we learn about him is that he works too much. How do we know? Because people keep telling him that he works too much. Especially his wife. Every character he knows makes the comment so frequently that I kept thinking it was some kind of foreshadowing. Would he have a heart attack? Would his wife leave him? This character’s only other outstanding trait is his regret that he did not assert his opinion more forcefully with his superiors before the Pearl Harbor attack; had he done so, perhaps the Americans would have been better prepared to thwart the Japanese assault.  That’s about it, aside from his propensity to utter portentous statements—or banal statements that sound portentous.

Everybody in this film is a tough guy. You have cocky young tough guys (Skrein). You have intellectual tough guys (Wilson). You have crusty old tough guys (Dennis Quaid playing Bull Halsey). You have wise old tough guys (Woody Harrelson who seems a strange pick to play Chester Nimitz). You have cocky young New York tough guys (Nick Jonas as Burno Gaido). And so on and so forth. Nobody, of course, is as tough as the Japanese (but more about that anon). Many of these tough guys do not get on with one another. Skrein’s character has a beef with Wade McClusky, the air group commander on his carrier (Luke Evans), and Eugene Lindsey, the leader of a torpedo bomber squadron (Darren Criss). This beef provides opportunities for much posturing, but fortunately for the United States, once the fighting gets serious, these tough guys all pull together to win the battle. No doubt all of these guys were tough, and the navy was a masculine world during this period, but the problem is that these characters all speak with the same voice.

Two characters don’t quite fit this general pattern, and they play only minor roles: the master codebreaker, Joseph Rochefort (Brennan Brown), and a young replacement pilot in Best’s squadron, Edwin Kroeger (James Hicks). Since he is a genius, Rochefort is, of course, eccentric, which means he is allowed to pad around in a bathrobe and slippers in his office while sneaking nips of whiskey from a flask concealed in a file cabinet. He also wears a perpetually fearful expression and an unhealthy, sweaty pallor. His look reminded me a little of Buster Keaton. As for Kroeger, the audience knows he is doomed the second he shows his sad baby face. At the end of a briefing, Kroeger approaches Best and stammers that he’s lost his confidence. Best initially tells Kroeger to suck it up but thinks the better of it and takes on Kroeger as a wingman in an attempt to help him. No matter; in the next scene, Kroeger crashes on takeoff, and the carrier runs over his plane. There is no mercy for the weak. Kroeger’s sole purpose in the movie consists of giving Best a brief pause to reflect on his leadership (and show his soft side to his wife) before he can resume his role as tough guy.

The portrayal of the Japanese is also clichéd. They are, of course, tough, but in a much more reserved way. A number of film critics have described the treatment of the Japanese in this film as respectful and even-handed, but one can’t help feel that there are some old stereotypes at work that insist on drawing them as a formal and restrained people. It’s hard to complain about these stereotypes when no disrespect is intended and the Americans are so thoroughly stereotyped themselves. Whatever the case, Midway depicts them as honorable and worthy adversaries which makes the American feat of sinking four Japanese carriers at Midway appear all the more impressive. Marshal Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (played by Etsushi Toyokawa) conforms to traditional portrayals of this leader. He is even-tempered and sagelike—a kind of Buddha in admiral’s clothes. Of course, had Yamamoto been as wise as the tradition portrays him, his Midway campaign might not have ended in fiasco. But Yamamoto is wise, so we get to hear him tell his wife the famous line with which his name is indelible associated—“I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve”—even though there is no evidence that Yamamoto ever said such a thing in his life. I must admit that it was hard to dislike the Japanese; after all the posturing on the American side, the Japanese affect seemed like a breath of fresh air. And the Japanese are funny (if only inadvertently). Occasionally, they give the Americans backhanded compliments during the action scenes: “The Americans are brave; lucky for us their planes are obsolete.” Such comments strangely reminded me of the kind of backhanded compliments I make about opposing teams during my son’s high school soccer games: “They’re creating a lot of chances; lucky for us they don’t know how to finish.” And the Japanese method of holding oneself to account, though also conforming to an old stereotype, felt refreshing—especially in this day and age when CEOs and politicians take “full responsibility” for some terrible mistake by traipsing off with a colossal severance package or, better yet, a cushy position somewhere else. Towards the end of the film, as the Hiryu (the fourth Japanese carrier destroyed by the Americans) is consumed by flames, Rear Admiral Tamon Yamaguchi (Tadanobu Asano) informs his officers that the defeat was not the fault of the Imperial Japanese Navy’s sailors. Instead, the sailors had been failed by their leaders. As one of those leaders, Yamaguchi insists on going down with the ship. Now that’s taking “full responsibility.”

And yet the portrayal of the Japanese as worthy adversaries goes a bit far when a dedication appears at the end of the film that pays tribute to the American and Japanese sailors who fought at Midway. This exercise in broadmindedness seems a bit pious for a cartoonish film like Midway. More important, this dedication appears to forget that the Japanese served an extremely violent, unpleasant, and militaristic regime. For sure, the United States was also an imperial power that sought to uphold the colonial status quota in Asia. Yet anybody familiar with the character of Japanese imperialism during World War II ought to feel a bit queasy about paying tribute to the Imperial Japanese Navy.

There are other annoyances in this film. One of my pet peeves is when historical films have characters say things for the sake of providing context to the audience. This type of thing occurs throughout Midway. At one point (could it have been after the Battle of Coral Sea?), I think Bull Halsey turns to one of his officers and says, “One of our carrier’s been sunk. Now we only have three in the Pacific!” This exclamation is purely for the audience’s benefit; all of Halsey’s officers would have known how many American carriers were arrayed against the Japanese. In another case, Layton takes Nimitz on a tour of the codebreakers’ offices to explain how the intelligence system works. Again, this scene is for the audience’s benefit; it’s hard to imagine that Nimitz didn’t understand how intelligence was collected. Such scenes are often necessary for historical films, but in Midway, they seem a bit unsubtle and ham-fisted.

Finally, there are all the little things that rivet-counters will object to. The dive time of the SBD Dauntless takes far too long in the film; the Dauntless is portrayed as far too maneuverable; the rear gunners on these Dauntlesses shoot down far too many Zeroes; the Dauntlesses dive too close together throughout their runs; the TBD Devastator could not carry a torpedo and bombs at the same time; there was no way that Best or anybody could have made a Dauntless use a hammerhead stall to evade Japanese fighter planes; and so on and so forth.

Yes, there is much in Midway that is exasperating. But it is hard to hate the film. It is certainly not as bad as Pearl Harbor (2001). I remember being so bored during Pearl Harbor that when the USS Arizona finally blew up after what seemed like an hour and forty minutes into the film, I just didn’t care anymore. Midway is shorter and punchier. It isn’t saddled with a dreadfully tedious love triangle the way Pearl Harbor was. The fact that it is a bit cartoonish seems to indicate that it doesn’t take itself quite as seriously as Pearl Harbor either. And that somehow makes it much less insulting. It is a mediocre action-adventure film masquerading as an ““epic re-creation of historical events.” I get the feeling that it almost winks from time to time that the history lesson is a cover for some good fun.

Maybe the action scenes are not perfect. They do remind me a bit of video games. They also resemble the attacks on the Death Star in Star Wars. Did George Lucas draw inspiration from old World War II movies with aerial combat? Do World War II films nowadays draw inspiration from Star Wars? It seems we have completed a loop. Whatever the case, how often do you see SBD Dauntless dive bombers on the big screen attacking a big Japanese flattop? That is a novel experience indeed.

Strictly speaking, the dive-bombing scenes are inaccurate. Yet they still represent an important truth in dramatized fashion. One clearly senses the thrill-terror of flying a clattering plane in a near-vertical dive while attempting to guide a bomb onto the deck of an enemy aircraft carrier that is throwing up a rich but deadly black storm of anti-aircraft fire. A sensitive, imaginative, and empathetic viewer who sees through all the pyrotechnics of Midway may just catch a glimpse of the serious question that occurs to Rear Admiral George Tarrant (Frederic March) at the end of the The Bridges at Toko-Ri (1954):

Where do we get such men? They leave this ship and they do their job. Then they must find this speck lost somewhere in the sea. When they find it they have to land on its pitching deck. Where do we get such men?

Although smaller-scaled than Midway, The Bridges at Toko-Ri (which takes place on an aircraft carrier during the Korean War) is a far superior film. An adult screenplay and better acting both contribute to that superiority. Together, they produce the haunting and dark spirit that characterize the movie. I can think of no better way to describe it than by referring to the way John Keegan depicted a passage from Michael Howard’s The Franco-Prussian War: “neo-Classical, severe in mood, somber in tone, his subjects frozen in the attitudes of tragedy in which fate, deaf to appeals of compassion, has consigned them.”[ii] The problem with Midway is that an action film masquerading as an “epic re-creation of historical events” cannot clearly render the darkness of the Pacific war. That darkness is apparently not suited for “a legendary story—fully distanced and mythic—suitable to be one of our national stories for all time.”

[i] Jeanine Basinger, The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003), 170-171.

[ii] John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: The Viking Press, 1976), 44.

Hollywood History is Wrong–and Maybe That’s OK

Historical films and TV shows are now all the rage. On the big screen, Dunkirk, Darkest Hour, The Post, Victoria & Abdul, American Made, and a host of other films set in distinct historical periods have caught audiences’ attention. Folks staying at home who content themselves with the tube have been treated to shows like Vikings, The Crown, Victoria, Poldark, Peaky Blinders, and Medici.

But now Simon Jenkins at The Guardian comes to ruin the party by resurrecting an old lament: Hollywood history is fake.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jan/11/hollywood-history-churchill-getty-trust-fiction?CMP=fb_gu

Indeed, Jenkins condemns this history in the strongest terms—the title of his piece more or less claims that movies treating historical topics are just as phony as “Russian propaganda.” Jenkins points out several examples of events in such films and TV that were manufactured (e.g. Darkest Hour has Churchill taking the Tube in London and asking commuters whether they wanted to make peace with Germany—which, of course, never happened).

Jenkins sees this cavalier attitude toward the truth as a symptom of a contemporary world that has lost its bearings, where journalism “is now made up of unattributed quotes” and the line between fact and fiction has been blurred by tolerance of fake news.

This blog has read The Guardian for a long time and understands that it has several axes to grind. The Guardian generally dislikes American culture and especially Hollywood. Its attitude toward Americans could be summed up generally by Fanny Trollope’s famous condemnation in Domestic Manners of the Americans (1832): “I do not like them. I do not like their principles; I do not like their manners, I do not like their opinions.” Moreover, The Guardian’s politics has made it wary of films like Dunkirk (which to some seems whitewashed and pro-Brexit) and Darkest Hour (the contemporary left in Britain very much dislikes Churchill). Still, Jenkins may be half right.

One Thing after Another has complained in the past about historical inaccuracies in films, especially among those whose explicit purpose seems to be didactic in some way. The thing is, though, there is nothing new about such films. They are not a product of a contemporary truthless age. Hollywood has always produced such movies. Take, for example, The Story of Louis Pasteur, which won Best Story, Best Screenplay, and Best Actor (Paul Muni) at the Academy Awards in 1936. It was terribly inaccurate. But that did not set it apart from all the other major biopics headlined by major stars during that period. Think of Queen Christina (1933), The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933), Annie Oakley (1935), Rembrandt (1936), Mary of Scotland (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), Marie Antoinette (1938), Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), and The Story of Alexander Graham Bell (1939). We could also refer to films set in particular historical periods (e.g. The Scarlet Pimpernel, which was released in 1934, or Gone with the Wind, which appeared in 1939). These films are rotten history, but there were important differences between that time and ours. These differences emerges in the Frank Nuget review of The Louis Pasteur Story which appeared in The New York Times and is worth quoting at length:

There are times when even a film reviewer feels the need of a preamble and today is one of them. With your permission, then, before speaking of “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” which moved into the Strand over the week-end, the department will confess that it is guilty of heresy. It believes that accuracy is not the most important part of biography. It will accept errors of time and place cheerfully, and it will condone the addition of known fiction to known fact provided these untruths are committed in the interests of a greater truth, which would be the preservation of spirit—not the chronological letter—of a man’s life.

“The Story of Louis Pasteur” telescopes the French scientist’s years and highlights his achievements. It embroils him in a prolonged feud with the French Academy of Sciences and its president. It has him incur Napoleon III’s displeasure and virtual banishment from Paris. It delays his recognition until the evening of his life. It portrays him as a model of scientific detachment, the laboratory method personified, a modest, academic, self-effacing man.

Most, if not all, of this is against the weight of such biographical evidence as one might encounter in staid Britannica or in the more lively pages of Paul De Kruif. And yet, possibly because we have heretical notions, we believe that Warners’ “The Story of Louis Pasteur” is an excellent biography, just as it is a notable photoplay, dignified in subject, dramatic in treatment and brilliantly played by Paul Muni, Fritz Leiber, Josephine Hutchinson and many other members of the cast.

There are two important points worth highlighting about this review. First, Nugent conceived of films and even biopics as art. He recognized that The Story of Louis Pasteur, like most other forms of art, fudged facts or “reality” to present larger more important truths. Second, Nugent was educated enough to know that The Story of Louis Pasteur was factually inaccurate. In other words, he had the capacity to distinguish between art and history, and he performed the service of letting his readers know what the distinction was. If there are differences between Nugent’s time and ours, they amount to the following. First, nowadays, many people possess so little understanding of history and art that they cannot grasp that “historical” films are more art than history. Second, contemporary reviewers, whose task consists of educating the public, have conspicuously failed to delineate the distinction between art and history—largely because they know nothing about the past.

The preceding seems to suggest that what is wanted among audiences and critics today is a broad, liberal education that would allow both to navigate the world of culture somewhat better. In this context, it should be pointed out that Nugent, who reviewed films for The New York Times for years, eventually moved to Hollywood and, among other things, worked with the famous director John Ford. In this capacity, Nugent wrote the screenplay for The Searchers, widely considered one of the finest Westerns ever made. We cannot claim that Nugent was the product of a liberal arts education (he attended Columbia University where he studied journalism), but judging from The Searchers, he was, for the times, a man of wide, human sympathies who understood much about people and things. If we cannot obtain our film critics from liberal arts colleges, maybe these sympathies and understandings, which we associate with a liberal education, are a good place to start.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Why are There No Indians in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk?

With respect to Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, there is a fair amount of “What about-ism” these days. What about Churchill? What about the French? As One Thing after Another has pointed out in a previous post, some critics are unhappy that Nolan did not include the stories of various figures or groups in his film. Now it is the turn of those who complain that Nolan has left Indians out of his tale.

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/aug/01/indian-african-dunkirk-history-whitewash-attitudes

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/02/opinion/dunkirk-indians-world-war.html?smid=fb-nytimes&smtyp=cur&_r=0

One Thing after Another has a two-part response to these criticism. First, Nolan’s ambition consisted of presenting the experience of Dunkirk, not relating the story of a battle in the round like, say, The Longest Day, or other such films associated with “blockbuster history.” In doing so, Nolan took British memories of Dunkirk as a plucky evacuation and recast them into a harrowing survival story (military historian Robert Citino claims this movie presents the best rendition of what helpless infantry must have felt like when attacked by Stukas). As this blog has argued earlier, many of Nolan’s critics appear to desire a semi-documentary that details the doings of everybody on the beach when that was never his ambition. In large part, they desire this treatment because they want his film to bear the large and unwieldy load of rectifying British amnesia about the contributions of others during the evacuation (and the entire war for that matter).

And that brings us to the second part of this blog’s response. In the New York Times, Yasmin Khan complains that Dunkirk allows Britons to continue ignoring the imperial dimension of World War II. Why, then, did Nolan not show Indian troops at Dunkirk or present the narrative through Indian eyes? The answer is that there were probably very few Indians at Dunkirk. When World War II broke out in September 1939, the Indian Army had just over 200,000 men on the rolls. According to Khan’s India at War: The Subcontinent and the Second World War, 53,000 Indians enlisted in the army during the first eight months of the war. In other words, when the Dunkirk evacuation occurred, the Indian Army still numbered under a quarter million men, not enough to spare many soldiers abroad, guard the volatile North-West Frontier, and maintain domestic order. Not surprisingly, then, the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) order of battle for 1940 reveals that there were no Indian combat units in France. Khan and others have pointed out that elements of the Royal India Army Service Corps (see photo above) were present in France and made it to the beaches for evacuation. But the RIASC only ever sent four companies to Franceabout 1,000 men. This unit would have constituted a drop in the bucket compared to the 225,000-odd British troops stranded on the beach. As for the lascars, those Indian sailors who constituted around a quarter of the British Merchant Navy’s strength, the evidence seems to indicate that they were not as numerous at Dunkirk as Sunny Singh believes. A large majority of British troops rescued from the beach were picked up by the Royal Navy’s smaller warships (destroyers, minesweepers, and so on) or vessels pressed into service by the Royal Navy (mainly ferry boats or those involved in Britain’s coastal trade). The latter, to judge from W. J. R. Gardner’s The Evacuation from Dunkirk: “Operation Dynamo”, 26 May-4 June 1940, the standard reference work on the subject, were captained by officers from the Royal Navy Reserve, and they generally appear to have been manned by British crews.

India’s enormous contribution to the British Empire’s war effort (as chronicled recently by both Khan’s excellent book and Srinath Raghavan’s India’s War: World War II and the Making of Modern South Asia) came later and elsewhere in the form of men, resources, and production. The Indian Army, which grew to just under 2.5 million men, played a very significant role in the Middle East, a commitment that spilled over into North Africa and thence to Italy and Greece. This force also proved particularly important in driving the Japanese out of Burma (now Myanmar). These missions were generally in keeping with the traditions of the Indian Army which consisted of safeguarding nearby imperial interests, including the Mediterranean, the Middle East, and southeast Asia (the one big exception came during World War I in the fall of 1914 when about one-fifth of the BEF in France consisted of Indian troops). And that is part of the reason why India’s contribution to the war has often been overlooked by both Britons and Indians; each has their reasons for ignoring the British Empire during World War II. British memories of the conflict stress how Britons heroically fought “alone” against the Germans for 18 months after France collapsed. This memory also tends to emphasize the action in Europe; there is less interest in the imperial dimension of the war because the empire is now dead and gone. At the same time, as Khan explains in her book, Indians also do not seem particularly interested in the role they played during World War II, largely because that role is difficult to incorporate in the nationalist narrative about India’s movement to independence in the 1940s. How does one tell the story of the almost 2.5 million Indian soldiers who faithfully did the British Empire’s bidding just a few short years before India’s “tryst with destiny”?

There is a movie yet to be made about Indians’ contribution to World War II that deals with the complexity of their relationship to the conflict and the British Empire. Dunkirk is not the setting for that movie. Such a film should be set in the Middle East or North Africa. Better yet, it it should take place in Burma, where eight of the thirteen infantry division that served in Bill Slim’s 14th Army were Indian. Their victories at Imphal and Kohima in the spring of 1944, which dealt Japan its greatest defeats on land during World War II, led to the recovery of Burma. It’s pretty clear that a British audience would not show much interest in such a film. But would Indians be in the mood to watch a movie that showed them in the service of an empire that they believe they are well rid of?

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk and Its Critics

If you pay attention to movies, you know that Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, which was released in the United States on Friday (and on July 13 in Britain), has been a tremendous hit with film critics, winning a fresh score of 92% at Rotten Tomatoes. Media outlets across the political spectrum appear to agree in conferring high honors on Dunkirk. For example, The Guardian acclaims it as “Nolan’s best film so far,” describes it as a “visceral piece of film-making,” and compares Nolan to Stanley Kubrick. Meanwhile, The Wall Street Journal, which usually doesn’t find itself on the same side of most issues as The Guardian, praises Nolan for having “created something new in the annals of war films—an intimate epic.”

The world, of course, would not be what it is if somebody wasn’t critical of Nolan’s choices. A handful of critics have complained that the film does not have much of an emotional core because there is little character development, and One Thing after Another can understand where they are coming from; Dunkirk is an inspired piece of filmmaking, but it is not perfect. One Thing after Another, however, is less forgiving of more political criticisms of the movie. In a mixed review that admires Dunkirk’s ability to immerse the audience in the experiences of the protagonists but criticizes the lack of character development, Jacques Mandelbaum in Le Monde (one of France’s pre-eminent newspapers) takes Nolan to task for turning his movie into “a purely English history.” “In this film, where are the 120,000 French soldiers also evacuated from Dunkirk?” Mandelbaum asks. “Where are the other 40,000 who sacrificed themselves to defend the city against an enemy superior in arms and in numbers?” Mandelbaum would like to rescue the story of Dunkirk from its status as an exclusively British epic; the narrative he desires to see is a Franco-British one. This narrative would stress the courageous efforts of French troops at Lille and Dunkirk who bought time for the men on the beach—both French and British—to be rescued in a joint Allied operation. It would also express the pathos of the relations between allies who were now fated to go their separate ways—the British saving themselves to fight another day and liberate the Continent, the French succumbing to defeat and the tender mercies of Petain and German occupation. This type of criticism of is intelligible. France has its own story to tell about a battle that took place on French soil and involved hundreds of thousands of French troops who generally acquitted themselves in a courageous fashion. One can understand how tiresome it must feel to have this tale usurped or appropriated by the British. Yet there is more than one way of looking at Dunkirk, and many of these ways do not involve surveying the battle in its totality. Nolan is clearly interested in using Dunkirk as the setting for a timeless survival story. In so doing, he recasts the traditional British memory of Dunkirk which stresses the virtues of pluckiness, improvisation, courage, and the stiff upper lip. Instead, Nolan’s Dunkirk is a grim, austere, and often terrifying story where men must face terrible choices as they run a gauntlet of nightmares. As The Guardian puts it, Dunkirk is not so much a war movie as a disaster film; the characters, often with limited means, try to evade or, at most, mitigate the great harm of war. Indeed, Dunkirk reminds One Thing after Another of Samuel Hynes’ The Soldiers’ Tale (1998) with its evocation of the soldier as helpless victim before the often indiscriminate and sweeping reach of modern war (see Slate‘s comments to this point). At the end of the film, one of the characters, now safely in Britain, gets hold of a newspaper, and in a sometimes faltering voice, reads aloud Winston Churchill’s famous June 4, 1940 oration in the House of Commons (commonly referred to as the “We Shall Fight Them on the Beaches” speech). How strange and incongruous these words sound in the mouth of an exhausted British soldier who has done everything he could to escape a French beach, surviving rifle fire, artillery bombardment, strafing, bombing, and the sinking of several vessels. This moment makes us aware of the degree to which Nolan seeks to overturn the story that has dominated British memories of the evacuation.

At bottom, Dorothy Rabinowitz’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Review (as opposed to the positive film review by Joe Morgenstern which is cited above) suffers from the same kind of problem as Mandelbaum’s criticism. Rabinowitz accuses Nolan of “dumbing down” the story of Dunkirk because he did not supply the full historical context for the evacuation. Churchill, she complains, never makes an appearance in the film and, as she points out, it’s almost impossible, unless one already knows the story of Dunkirk, to see that the British characters in the film are pitted against Nazi Germany. Rabinowitz attributes the worst motives to Nolan by dwelling on his desire to make a “universal” and “relevant” story that neither gets bogged down in “politics” nor seems “old-fashioned.” She concludes that these aims show how little Nolan thinks of his audience; he does not wish, she argues, to tax their intellect too much. Like Mandelbaum, she wants a more complete story, but her version would involve Churchill, the discussions of the British cabinet, the conferences of generals and admirals, a full accounting of what occurred on the beach, and so on. In graduate school, One Thing after Another learned that a book reviewer should generally criticize a work on the basis of its arguments, not for neglecting to cover the topic that the reviewer wished the author had tackled. That piece of advice seems particularly apposite in this case. Rabinowitz appears incensed that Nolan did not depict Dunkirk the way she would have done it. As we have already seen, Nolan’s goals are far different from hers. She is interested in presenting what amounts to a history lesson in semi-documentary form. He is more concerned with the experience of individuals who try, each in his own way, to deal with the disaster at Dunkirk. Again, there is more than one way to portray this story.

One Thing after Another will go further, though, and argue that in other cases, Rabinowitz’s preferred approach to telling a World War II story has already been tried and found wanting. From the early 1960s, starting with The Longest Day (1962), and continuing until A Bridge Too Far (1977), Hollywood was plagued by “blockbuster history” films about World War II (to use Stephen Ambrose’s phrase). These movies, which also included The Battle of the Bulge (1965), The Battle of Britain (1969), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), were huge productions that involved enormous casts and long running times. They interlaced the big picture with the little one, attempting to integrate the stories of politicians and generals with common soldiers. They could be entertaining and compelling in spots, but they generally faltered under the weight of their own ambitions. Film critics do not consider them great films, and historians do not think of them as great history. This sub-genre, then, has already been done before and, by most accounts, has failed. Why would Nolan want to give Dunkirk the blockbuster history treatment which is what Rabinowtiz seems to demand of him? Perhaps this is what Nolan meant when he said he did not want to make an “old-fashioned” war film.

Mandelbaum and Rabinowitz ought to understand that one can see the story of Dunkirk from a variety of perspectives. In recognizing that fact, they should ask themselves, first, if Nolan has seized upon an interesting and worthwhile perspective and, second, if he has related his tale well. Most critics, it appears, have answered “yes” to both questions.

Furthermore, I consider that the myth of the unemployable History major must be destroyed.

Ben Affleck and Slavery

Affleck Finding Your Roots

Surely, you have heard something about Ben Affleck’s recent collision with history. If not, One Thing after Another is more than happy to fill you in. . . .

You may or may not have heard of a PBS show entitled Finding Your Roots, hosted by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a prominent professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University. The show uses genealogy and genetic testing to investigate the family history of celebrity guests. The research is compiled in a so-called “book of life,” and the highlight of most episodes has Gates assisting the guests in understanding their book. The second season ended in November 2014, and celebrities have included Harry Connick, Jr., Barbara Walters, Kevin Bacon, Robert Downey, Jr., Samuel L Jackson, Condoleezza Rice, Martha Stewart, Stephen King, Derek Jeter, Ken Burns, Anderson Cooper, Sting, George Stephanopoulos, Deval Patrick, and . . . Ben Affleck.

Our story begins, strangely enough, last year with the hacking of Sony by an organization calling itself the Guardians of Peace. The United States government alleges that the Guardians of Peace were really working for North Korea, but a number of cyber security experts have questioned that charge. Whatever the case, a number of Sony’s hacked emails and documents ended up on the WikiLeaks web site last week in an easily searchable database. News organizations immediately began trawling through the mass of material, and the Daily Mail eventually found an interesting exchange between Gates and Michael Lynton, chief of Sony Pictures, concerning Ben Affleck’s appearance on the show.

According to the emails (which were exchanged in July 2014, about three months before the episode aired in October), Finding Your Roots discovered that Affleck had an ancestor who owned slaves, and the movie star was putting pressure on Gates and PBS to omit that fact from the show.

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3043803/Ben-Affleck-wanted-slave-owner-ancestor-censored-Finding-Roots-PBS-documentary-s-host-covered-leaked-emails-reveal.html

Gates wrote to Lynton, “Here’s my dilemma: confidentially, for the first time, one of our guests has asked us to edit out something about one of his ancestors–the fact that he owned slaves. We’ve never had anyone ever try to censor or edit what we found. He’s a megastar. What do we do?” Lynton responded with the following observation: “On the doc the big question is who knows that the material is in the doc and is being taken out. I would take it out if no one knows, but if it gets out that you are editing the material based on this kind of sensitivity then it gets tricky.” In other words, it all depended on how many people at PBS knew about Affleck’s ancestor. Both agreed that too many people at PBS knew about Affleck’s ancestor to keep the finding a secret. In subsequent messages, Gates recognized that editing out the ancestor at Affleck’s request would violate PBS rules. Not only that, but he understood that if the news ever did leak out, it would embarrass Affleck and compromise the show’s integrity. How prescient!

In the event, Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor did not appear in the episode (which ran in October 2014), and Gates’ worst fears came true. As a result of the Sony leak, Affleck has been embarrassed and the show’s integrity has been compromised.

You can see a preview of Affleck’s episode here:

Once the story broke, Gates offered the following explanations for his actions on the PBS web site:

http://www.pbs.org/about/news/archive/2015/statements-finding-your-roots/

The slave-owning ancestor, Gates argues, ended up on the cutting-room floor for the sake of offering “the most compelling narrative.” According to Gates, he and the producers did not accede to Affleck’s request to protect him. Rather, they sought to produce the most interesting story.

Affleck’s explanation, which appeared on his Facebook page, is somewhat different:

Affleck’s points amount to the following. He was embarrassed by his ancestor, and he tried to influence the PBS producers in the same way that he has influenced his directors in the past. He saw nothing improper in this behavior since Finding Your Roots is not a news program and therefore does not have a responsibility to present the whole truth. At the end of the day, of course, he regrets his decision.

Now that the program has blown up in everybody’s face, PBS has launched an internal investigation into the circumstances associated with the production of this episode:

http://www.pbs.org/ombudsman/blogs/ombudsman/2015/04/21/who-knew-not-us-pbs-now-says-about-roots-controversy/

A broad spectrum of reactions characterizes the web’s attitude toward this story. On one end, we have the following piece by Brian Lowry at Variety:

http://variety.com/2015/tv/columns/ben-affleck-pbs-show-slavery-backlash-1201477211/

Lowry describes the whole incident as a tempest in a teapot. The gist of his argument is that Finding Your Roots is a “a pandering showcase for celebrities to explore their genealogy” and “a lightweight gimmick, one that PBS has given an imprimatur of quality because of its adjacency to the first-rate documentaries that the service airs.” The only reason the story has attracted so much attention, Lowry charges, is because of the way it was leaked, widespread dislike of Affleck (only compounded by his prima donna behavior), and a desire among conservatives to get rid of PBS.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have Soraya Nadia McDonald at the Washington Post, making a very different argument:

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/style-blog/wp/2015/04/19/even-pbs-isnt-immune-to-hollywoods-big-pr-machine-or-the-influence-of-ben-affleck/

It is difficult to summarize briefly McDonald’s position, but the main thrust of her argument is that when you add Affleck’s wish to protect his “brand” to PBS’s desire to obtain a larger and younger audience, this kind of thing was bound to happen. And this kind of thing, she argues, is bad. Because of its distinct mission, PBS has a duty to serve the public interest. Unfortunately, the public interest is not served by gliding over the issue of slavery and presenting what amounts to a sugar-coated version of Affleck’s family tree.

One Thing after Another, as usual, judges as a historian. While Lowry and McDonald do not see eye-to-eye on the overall significance of this Finding Your Roots episode, they do agree on one thing: PBS’s desire to obtain higher ratings by developing a show of this sort left it vulnerable to such an incident. PBS found itself confronted by an age-old question: how does one present educational material in an attractive and interesting fashion? PBS’s mission consists of creating

content that educates, informs and inspires. To do this, PBS offers programming that expands the minds of children, documentaries that open up new worlds, non-commercialized news programs that keep citizens informed on world events and cultures and programs that expose America to the worlds of music, theater, dance and art.

PBS also describes itself as “America’s largest classroom, the nation’s largest stage for the arts and a trusted window to the world.” (See http://www.pbs.org/about/corporate-information/ and http://www.pbs.org/about/corporate-information/mission/.)

And yet, what good was this classroom or stage if no one was watching? PBS naturally felt the pressure of obtaining higher ratings.

When it came to Finding Your Roots, the public broadcaster opted for “edutainment” (One Thing after Another’s favorite new word) which ended up being a volatile mix of education and entertainment. For this reason, the various players in the story saw their roles very differently. In his explanation of what happened, Gates the professor wrote about “editorial integrity” and unlocking “new ways to learn about our past.” In other words, Gates subscribed to the idea of the classroom. Affleck the actor wrote of lobbying Gates as if the latter were a director and reminded everyone that Finding Your Roots “isn’t a news program.” From Affleck’s perspective, the show was, well, “a show.”

Even if PBS created an unstable situation that was bound to compromise itself, one cannot help but be disappointed with the principals involved. Affleck described himself as growing up in a politically active family of “left-wing Democrats” (his mother, as Finding Your Roots revealed, was a Freedom Rider in Mississippi in the 1960s). He of all people ought to have realized how a discussion regarding his ancestor could have contributed to a dialogue about slavery—something that is still very relevant in this day and age. When compared to the reactions of other celebrities who have been informed that their ancestors were slaveholders (Anderson Cooper, to name one), Affleck’s refusal to own his family’s past seems graceless.

Gates’ role in this incident is almost inexplicable. He is literary scholar, not a historian, and he famously wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times about “ending the slavery blame-game” (i.e. African-Americans should not use their enslavement to obtain reparations from the United States government). Still, he must be thoroughly aware of the destructive role that slavery has played in American life, and he of all people ought to have seen how fruitful a discussion of Affleck’s ancestor could have been. Gates’ emails indicate that he knew Affleck’s request ran contrary to the spirit (if not the editorial rules) of the show. It seems clear that he was cowed by Affleck’s “megastar” status, and Lowry is probably not far off the mark when he describes Gates’ position as “spineless.” Then again, Gates might have felt his position was fundamentally undermined by the show’s straddling of education and entertainment.

One Thing after Another is both depressed and cheered by this incident. On the one hand, it is clear that PBS has not fulfilled its role as classroom, and an interesting opportunity to discuss slavery has been missed. Gates claimed he left out Affleck’s slave-owning ancestor for the sake of presenting a more interesting narrative. But what better captures the great paradox that is American history than the ancestry of a man whose mother was a Freedom Rider and whose great-great-great-grandfather (on his mother’s side, no less) was a slaveholder? What better encapsulation of the American experience could there be? Unfortunately, all the brouhaha about Finding Your Roots has revolved around Affleck and Gates’ dishonesty, not the issue they sought to elide.

And yet, there is perhaps some cause for hope. Affleck believed the information about his ancestor was so powerful that he had to keep it under wraps. One Thing after Another advises that in contemplating this incident, you should not seek to emulate Affleck’s attempt to suppress history. Rather, like he did, you should recognize its power.

Selma, The Imitation Game, and Hollywood’s Duty to History

selma-movie

No doubt you remember the 2015 Academy Awards which took place just over a month ago. There was some controversy surrounding two films–Selma and the Imitation Game–that brought up an age-old question: to what extent should Hollywood get history right?

Selma, of course, covers the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, focusing mainly on Martin Luther King, Jr. The Imitation Game is about Alan Turing’s activities during World War II, namely his participation in the attempt to crack the codes produced by Germany’s Enigma machine. Neither film did particularly well at the Oscars, and both were criticized for their historical inaccuracies. Selma received only two nominations (Best Picture and Best Original Song, winning only in the latter category) while The Imitation Game received eight but came away with only the award for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Did members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences snub Selma and The Imitation Game because they had concerns about historical inaccuracies in the films? Or was it because one film was about the African American struggle for civil rights while the other was a bio-pic about a gay man? Francine Prose, writing in The New York Review of Books blog, seems to think it was a combination of these factors:

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/feb/10/case-for-hollywood-history/

Prose argues that discussions of these films’ historical inaccuracies did undermine their chances with the Academy, but she also suggests that these discussions were a cover for critics’ discomfort with the subject matter of both movies. As she puts it, “perhaps the real source of controversy isn’t the question of truth in historical films, but rather the subjects of historical films—and how vexed those subjects are.” She concludes that “it’s so much easier and less threatening to talk about whether (or how much of) a film is ‘true’ than to confront the unpleasant—and indisputable—truth: that racial and sexual prejudice have persisted so long past the historical eras in which these films are set.”

Prose may have a point here, but One Thing after Another does not have the power to search the hearts of Academy members and determine whether their objection to historical inaccuracy are sincere or merely a blind for more pernicious thoughts. Moreover, One Thing after Another believes historical inaccuracy does interfere with the ability to engage with important questions arising from movies such as these. If a film wishes to be taken seriously as it addresses significant social issues–that is, if it seeks to educate its audience–it has a duty to get the facts correct. Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure is under no obligation to get the facts right because it does not have pretensions of enlightening its audience, but films like Selma and the Imitation Game do have that obligation.

Prose does not seem to believe in that obligation. In her “case for Hollywood history,” she asserts that she grew up in a period when expectations concerning the historical accuracy of films was rather low. Indeed, in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, viewers and critics did not seem so interested in this matter. She also relates her experience of watching Selma with her eight-year-old granddaughter. Much of the movie went over her granddaughter’s head, but she emerged from the theater with an appreciation of the demonstrators’ bravery and an understanding of why the civil rights movement was necessary. Prose remarks, “Later, I thought, my granddaughter and I can deal with the film’s historical mistakes.”

Among Prose’s comments, two points jump out at One Thing after Another. First, Prose’s standard for historical accuracy is rather low. She learned the following from watching films in her childhood:

What got my attention was the fact that men named Zola and Dreyfus existed, and that a woman had won the Nobel Prize in science: a concept that came as a something of shock to a little girl growing up during the height (or the depths) of the Mad Men 1950s. I recall being enthralled by the achievements of Pasteur (he saved a little boy from rabies!) and the Dreyfus case. And my fascination with Ivanhoe and Robin Hood persisted.

And then, of course, we hear about her granddaughter, the second-grader, learning some basic ideas from Selma. According to Prose, we should not demand very much from a film. It is a gateway that may lead us to history, but we should not ask it to do anything very serious in that respect.

Second, Prose assumes that everybody else has the capacity to deal with a film’s historical mistakes “later.” One Thing after Another wonders how many viewers of films have the capacity to do that. As Elizabeth Drew asks, in a post (on the very same blog) criticizing Selma‘s inaccuracies, “Is every kid who’s misled by Selma going to take a seminar on it?”

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/jan/08/selma-vs-history/

One of the big inaccuracies in Selma that has attracted much attention is its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson who is depicted as opposing the voting rights bill. Does it matter whether or not Johnson actually supported such a bill? Drew thinks so, and if we want to understand how legal discrimination was dismantled, we probably ought to know that the President and King were more or less on the same page. In other words, while the marches and King and Malcolm X were necessary to passing a voting rights bill, they were not sufficient–the president also played a significant role–an important lesson on which Americans ought to reflect in their capacity as citizens.

imitation_game_a_p

The Imitation Game is much more profoundly flawed, and its mistakes interfere much more with a true appreciation its subject, as Christian Caryl points out:

http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2014/dec/19/poor-imitation-alan-turing/

In the film, Turing is caricatured as a social misfit/lone “scientist” who almost singlehandedly broke German code during World War II. Such a view does a disservice to Turing while reinforcing stereotypes of how science works. To be honest, the film does not even really engage seriously with the science and mathematics behind the massive multi-national effort that led to the progressive decryption of German codes (which involved involved  significant breakthroughs by Polish and French mathematicians) . That’s a shame, because if we should care about Turing at all, it is as a mathematician. At the same time, we also ought to realize that thousands of people were involved in the attempt to read German codes, and while Turing was among the most prominent, he was still part of a highly talented team that included mathematicians, linguists, historians, chess champions, crossword puzzle experts, and military officers. That fact points to something important: while Turing was considered eccentric, he was not socially inept. Moreover, he possessed a variety of talents–among other things, he was an Olympic-level, long-distance runner. As Caryl argues, “either you embrace the richness of Turing as a character and trust the audience to follow you there, or you simply capitulate, by reducing him to a caricature of the tortured genius.” The film seems to have opted for the latter course.

In addition to these kinds of mistakes, The Imitation Game is not entirely frank about Turing’s sexuality in particular or mid-20th century British attitudes toward homosexuality in general. As Caryn puts it, the film is “desperate to put Turing in the role of a gay liberation totem but can’t bring itself to show him kissing another man—something he did frequently, and with gusto. . . . The Imitation Game is a film that prefers its gay men decorously disembodied.” Benedict Cumberbatch has responded to this criticism by arguing that the film is not an exploration of Turing’s “sex life” and that if viewers demand to see sex scenes in such a film, “all is lost for any kind of subtle storytelling.” But can a film convert Turing into a gay martyr without dwelling on the thing for which he was martyred? At the same time, the film does not really capture the context within which Turing operated as a gay man. Turing was actually quite open about his sexuality to his friends who accepted him for who he was. Such an attitude should not surprise us. England’s great public schools (e.g. Eton, Rugby, Charterhouse, and Harrow), along with Cambridge and Oxford Universities, had long tolerated gay sub-cultures. In other words, Turing’s world was not entirely homophobic. It was when his homosexuality was discovered by the police–purely by accident after his boyfriend had stolen some items from his house–that Turing ran afoul of the law and was subjected to a bizarre and barbarous punishment. However, his “treatment” via stilboestrol lasted for only a year (not until his death as the movie suggets), and by all accounts, Turing bore this burden courageously instead of falling apart as he did in the film. In other words, Turing was a complex person living in a world that expressed mixed attitudes towards his homosexuality. And if we understand that person living in that world, we come to a finer understanding of the questions that surround the relationship between the two.

One Thing after Another does not want to make a fetish of historical accuracy in films, but if films pretend to educate us on various social issues, these issues must be placed in their proper context so we can learn how to address them. Students as well as the public often perceive long-standing social issues through two lenses. One sees them as static (e.g. racism always manifested itself in pretty much the same way) while the other sees them as problems that occur elsewhere–either in the past or in another part of the world (e.g. racism only happened in the bad old days but we are fine now). What historians seek to do is restore some dynamism to these questions because in human affairs nothing stands still for very long, and everything is actually rather more complicated than it might appear at first glance. Understanding the often changing circumstances under which social issues emerge is extremely important to understanding that tension itself.